Soon after Brad Childress was hired, he gave an interview in which he readily admitted that he was not a Bill Parcells-like candidate, that if he failed to be successful in Minnesota, it was unlikely he would have a number of teams beating down his door for further head-coaching offers. Childress insisted that he would have to do things "his way" and not have regrets that he missed his opportunity to coach the way he wanted.
First, let's look at the positives for Childress' tenure. He took over a team swathed in controversy, fresh off the "Whizzinator" and "Love Boat" scandals and which was a mess on the field. After the 2005 season, the team fired Mike Tice and the roster was surprisingly lean. There was no QB to build around, no offensive stars (Travis Taylor was the leading receiver that year, Mewelde Moore the leading rusher) and few building blocks on defense outside of DT Kevin Williams and CB Antoine Winfield.
Childress' first Vikings team went 6-10 in a rebuilding season, but they improved by two wins in each of the next two seasons, to 8-8 and then 10-6 in a division-winning season in 2008. Childress knew he was a quarterback short of getting to the next level, and he endorsed pursuing Brett Favre even if the coach knew he might have to manage Favre's ego and that the two men with type-A personalities likely would butt heads at times.
During a magical season in 2009, Childress took a backseat to Favre and let the QB turn back the clock and defy age because things were working. The defense maintained its excellence over that stretch, and Childress let Leslie Frazier run the show on that side of the ball. Although Childress and his players didn't love each other, they made it work and got all the way to the NFC championship game, just a few plays away from getting to the Super Bowl.
Since that time, things fell apart quicker than anyone could have imagined. It should be noted that there were many people who questioned the timing of the Vikings giving Childress a contract extension when the team sat at 7-1 last season. But it would have happened after the season, no question, considering how far the team had come.
Where Childress lost his team was first because of the losing. He believed the Vikings were a serious contender and had a roster that was ready to make a deep run again in 2010. But there were serious questions about age at a number of spots, most notably with Favre and on defense, and Childress (who had final say over the makeup of the 53-man roster) overrated his own club. It became clear through the 1-2 start that the talent level was not up to what he and the front office believed it was.
But the move to acquire Randy Moss might have been the first sign of real trouble, and it highlighted some of Childress' difficulties not only managing his roster but also how he dealt with his players. Not only did Childress rub Moss the wrong way, but he famously called out Favre after the loss to the Packers. That was viewed as a confidence-killing move in the locker room, something that could be aired privately but not in front of a room full of cameras and reporters. Players typically can handle private criticism from coaches — most of them, anyway — but a public excoriation, even if the criticism is legit, is considered blasphemy in almost any locker room.
The rift between Favre and Childress was well-documented, and it was born last season, even amid the winning. But the fact that Childress aired their dirty laundry, indirectly or not, did not go over well. And not just with the players — owner Zygi Wilf thought it exhibited poor leadership from his coach, who was losing his grip on the team. And when Childress announced to his team that he was cutting Moss before he made his intentions know to ownership, which was the process the two sides had agreed upon ahead of time, Wilf was incensed.
Truthfully, this firing would have happened two weeks ago had the Vikings not come back from 14 points down in the final 4:30 against the lowly Cardinals to win thrillingly in overtime behind Favre's heroics. Some observers were surprised it didn't happen following the 27-13 loss in Week 10 to the Bears in Chicago, and Wilf might regret not having done so then, as he now has one fewer game in which to evaluate interim head coach Leslie Frazier as Childress' potential long-term replacement.
There have been plenty of head coaches, and successful ones, who have not seen eye to eye with his players. There have been a number of stubborn, hard-headed coaches who have wedged their system on a team and won a lot of games doing so. But even the most gruff coaches have to know how to balance that attitude with a measure of encouragement. They also have to know that while players do not have to be friends with the coach, they do have to respect him. Our sources have said that Childress had a very cool relationship with most of the players, and they never felt much of a connection to him personally. In the end, that hurt him. Verbal altercations with Favre and Percy Harvin this season are evidence of that, and it trickled over onto the sideline in Sunday's loss with a few different incidents during the blowout.
Childress coached his way in Minnesota. Was it always successful? No, but it was successful more often than not, which is hard to remember given all the crises this season. The arrow pointed steadily up through his first four seasons until it crashed hard this year. Childress' way, of course, is not without its share of criticism, and you have to wonder what the expiration date would have been even had the team won more games this season. And Childress perhaps fulfilled his own prophecy: After the mess in Minnesota, it will be a while before someone considers hiring him as an NFL head coach.